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“Creation of a Common Future : Reconciling Turks and Armenians” by Fatma Müge Göçek


“Creation of a Common Future : Reconciling Turks and Armenians” Fatma Müge Göçek University of Michigan

I want to start my talk with two sets of thanks, to those of you in the audience for being here and to the organizers of the “Facing History and Ourselves” on both sides of the Atlantic for inviting me to give this talk. I want to note at this juncture that this is the first time I am giving a talk on this very significant yet politically polarizing topic outside of an academic setting : I had as a matter of principle decided not to talk outside academia because of the very emotional connection Armenians and Turks have toward the historical events associated with 1915.

Why is 1915 so emotional for the Turks and the Armenians ? For the Armenians, 1915 signifies death, destruction and suffering, a forced deportation and final removal from their ancestral homelands, it signifies years of wandering as they settle throughout the world forced to start anew from scratch in societies alien to them, carving out new lives for themselves while yearning for what they left behind without being able to return, while trying to explain to their children why they can not go back to their homeland ; what happened to them and why ; why their children do not have grandparents like the others around them ; why they cannot mourn their past tragedies faced by the denial of their suffering by the Turkish state. As a consequence, 1915 translates into mounting frustration, sometimes into hatred toward the Turkish state, extends into dislike of Turks in general, and disappointment with humanity and the loss of hope in ever making peace with themselves and, more importantly, of establishing a peaceful world for their children.

For the Turks, 1915 likewise signifies a political injustice foisted upon them by a unified West intent upon keeping them out of the European Union, a historical event that indeed may be a tragedy but is actually one of the many tragedies that the Turks faced in the process of the destruction of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the Turkish Republic ; for the Turks, being forced to recognize this particular tragedy may bring about memories that may fragment them and tear them apart to the point of no return. It is not that the West actually cares about the Armenian tragedy, but is actually exploiting this particular event, as it has done so many times in the past, as an excuse to once again keep the Turks out of Europe ; it cannot openly state it does not want Turkey in Europe so it makes the most use of each and every opportunity to keep them out. So for the Turks too, 1915 translates into mounting frustration, sometimes into hatred toward the European Union, extends into dislike of the West in general, and disappointment with humanity and the loss of hope in ever making peace with themselves and, more importantly, of establishing a peaceful world for their children.

So you see that the end-result for the two groups is the same : disappointment with humanity and the loss of hope in ever making peace with themselves and, more importantly, of establishing a peaceful world for their children. And this is why I have decided to make an exception and accepted the invitation of the “Facing History and Ourselves” because they provide us with a peaceful vision and a solution that will take us away from this very polarized and dangerous juncture. For this polarized and politicized environment benefits no one : it does not benefit the Armenians who still have to live with their escalating anger, hatred and frustration, awaiting futilely as they have for so many years for the chance to grieve and mourn for their tragic losses and start their healing process confronted yet again by a Turkey moving away from them ; and it does not benefit the Turks who once again turn inward and suppress amongst themselves all vestiges of difference, liberty and democracy in the name of national unity, withdrawing inward, away from the West, away from all that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and the Turkish Republic once aspired for toward an uncertain future. It does not benefit a Europe that attempts to become global in an increasingly multi-cultural world but seems to falter when it is time to accept as a member a country that is ‘different’ than the rest, withdraw instead to its traditional borders under various excuses.

Why is the endeavor of “Facing History” so significant ? I think the only way our new twenty-first century is going to produce peaceful solutions is if all societies, including the Turkish, Armenian, British, American, French as well as countless others, can truly confront their histories, their past again and again, constantly and systematically, to account for the numerous injustices embedded in them with the intention to make sure they are not repeated in the future. To thus ascertain that these injustices do not keep repeating themselves to produce so much pain and suffering, pain and suffering to destroy and maim not only cultures, civilizations and generations of people, but also their descendants for decades and centuries. Bright futures are only possible by confronting, facing the evils of the past, not by burying them, or by chastising, censoring or punishing those who research the past. And the mission is to research and generate knowledge and understanding not to politicize, not to impose one particular version of the past at the expense of others : in this process, total freedom in both conducting research into the past and into expressing one’s various interpretations of the past is, of course, a must. This is why it is important to have, rather than states, foundations, academic institutions and scholars involved in the research of the past for states have particular political agendas and develop their own nationalist histories of the past.

With this introduction, what I want to do during the rest of my talk is to share with you my own history of my research on the events surrounding 1915. I have been trained as a historical sociologist and as such I study specifically how history is negotiated in the present by contemporary societies. Before I do so, however, let me provide you with a brief summary of what happened in 1915 that is still with us as if it happened yesterday.

What happened in 1915 and how has it impacted the course of events until today ? . The origins of the problem can be traced back to the 19th century intersection of the ability of Europe to embark on an imperialist expansion at the expense of the Ottoman Empire, the inability of the Ottoman Empire to meet the challenges of the rising West, and the concomitant inability of the Ottoman Armenians to meet their economic and political aspirations within the Ottoman Empire. A majority of Armenians, having lost their state in their homeland in the 11th century, had been living under Ottoman rule since the 16th century, the balance having been absorbed into the Persian and later Russian empires. Even though the Ottoman Empire undertook a series of reforms at this particular intersection, they ultimately failed to improve the conditions of rural and small town Armenian subjects or alleviate their unequal status within the Ottoman state dominated by Muslim Turks.

On the eve of World War I, the situation became more polarized with the advent of the ideology of nationalism. After reform minded officials of the Committee of Union and Progress first intervened to establish constitutional rule in the empire in 1908, a handful of military minded ones among them carried out a coup to assume direct power in 1913, thereby creating a dangerous political context : this proto-nationalist group in power from among the Young Turks defined the preservation of their power and the state at all costs as their top priority and sacred duty. They started to view and define the Armenian political parties and leadership that in general sought assistance for reforms from the Great Powers as a major threat against the Ottoman state.

The parameters of the conflict between the Armenians and the Turks as it appears today were thus delineated in the years 1915-1917 during World War I when the Ottoman Turkish government orchestrated the deportation of most and massacre of an estimated one million Armenians from throughout Anatolia that had been their ancestral lands. The government justified its actions then as the removal of a perceived threat against the Ottoman state. Based on the testimonies of the victims, the eyewitness accounts of the foreigners, Western consular reports and other documentation, the world community of scholars has eventually identified and termed what happened to the Armenians as genocide. The Republic of Turkey that succeeded the Ottoman state, however, has denied this assessment to this day and has argued instead that what occurred was a deportation instigated by the seditious behavior of the Armenian subjects of the empire against the Ottoman army defending the state. Hence, not only does the Turkish state reject that the initial intention had been to massacre the Armenians, but it also justifies the actions that were taken by continuing to accuse the victims themselves for their subsequent destruction.

The victim’s expectation that the crime committed against it be recognized as such has instead encountered the Turkish counter-view, which places its own victimization by the Great Powers at the center of its own perception of history. By replacing their own victimization by the Great Powers with the victimization of the Armenians that they are asked to account for, the Turkish counter-view thus makes what happened to the Armenians an almost irrelevant detail, a nuisance at best, something that should be denied, trivialized, or explained away. The mainline official Turkish position has been to do all three, at the same time.

The dispute over this historical event has had serious consequences. Internationally, it has forced the Turkish state to spend millions of dollars over the decades and make constant political and military concessions to defend and sustain its claims ; domestically, the production of historical research and information on the event has had to be tightly controlled both in the public sphere as well as in school textbooks, producing a citizenry that by and large remains ignorant of this and so many other similar events of Ottoman history. Faced with the Turkish state denial, the Armenian Diaspora was also adversely affected. Not only has it had to suffer through the trauma of the genocide and the subsequent displacement, but because of this denial, it could not start to mourn and eventually heal : it has therefore had to continue living with the pain and suffering of 1915 to this day, accompanied in the meanwhile by escalating anger and hatred. The Diaspora too has had to spend millions of dollars to prove that what happened to them was indeed genocide.

Three generations after the historical events the battle lines have been drawn on either side of their characterization. On the level of individuals, most Armenians and Turks recognize each other through the way in which they define their identity in relation to the term genocide : while the Armenians insist on employing the term the Turks demand its rejection. The Armenian agenda to compel others to recognize the genocide has become a principle of community organization and power legitimation. As a consequence, energies concentrate almost exclusively on genocide recognition at the expense of many social, political and economic concerns. For the security minded Turkish state, the fight against such recognition emerges as a significant dimension of the continued and continuously promoted “Sevres syndrome,” the fear of the intent of the world to dismember Turkey. As a result, militaristic thinking and repressive policies dominate within the country at the expense of more democratic developments.

A number of countries have also not refrained from utilizing this battle around genocide recognition to their own advantage whenever it fits into their agenda. They have, for instance, employed this battle as a tool of pressure on Turkey, during her application to join the European Union or to compel her to participate in conflicts in the Middle East. For others that do not wish to see relations between Turkey and independent Armenia normalize, the battle around genocide recognition has provided an excellent field of action within which to polarize the two sides. And it is unfortunate that for the policy-makers in Turkey, this continued international engagement in the battle around genocide recognition only serves to justify and feed into their fears and repressive policies, thereby confining their choice of actions. As can be surmised, this highly destructive state of affairs makes reconciliation all the more relevant and urgent for regional and international peace and stability as well as for the peoples affected.

Why did I decide to work on this issue ? My knowledge about what happened in 1915 was practically non-existent when I was in Turkey because this subject was not taught in our textbooks : I think that what I was taught in my history courses back then was very nationalistic and highly selective. My first encounter with the topic was an emotional one and probably resembles that of many other Turks : I arrived in the United States in 1981 to do my doctoral research at Princeton University and as I met Armenians on social occasions I was immediately asked as to why I murdered their grandparents. This is highly offensive when you do not know what has happened in the past and you are suddenly accused with a heinous crime you know nothing about : you cannot react in any way except to deny or justify or withdraw. In my case, as I was training to become a historical sociologist, I decided to slowly research this phenomenon. But I did so gradually, after I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the rise of the bourgeoisie and the demise of the Ottoman Empire and after I received tenure at the University of Michigan. For I was aware that this was also a highly politically contentious topic and one that could only be approached if one belonged to a community of scholars who shared a certain vision of the future. It helped, nevertheless, that I had been working in the Ottoman archives since 1979 and I knew Ottoman documents and sources ; I therefore knew many scholars who worked on Ottoman and Middle Eastern history.

It was in1998, however, that I made the specific decision to concentrate on 1915 as the topic of my next book particularly as a consequence of the intersection of two events. One concerned the issue of democracy in Turkey where I was focusing on a specific question : what were the historical processes that hindered Turkey’s democratization ? The sociological literature informed me that democracy, etymologically made of the words ‘demos’ and ‘cratos’, which means ‘the power of the people’ which often translated into the power of the majority at the expense of the minorities. As such, the greatest danger democracies faced was to guarantee the rights of their minorities. Since the minorities in a society are defined as those social groups who do not get an equal share in the distribution of power, then in Turkey at various junctures women, Kurds, non-Muslims such as Greeks, Jews and Armenians, Alevis, leftists, Islamists emerged as minorities that had not been given equal representation within the history of the Turkish Republic. I could then study the historical development of these social groups, but studying all of them would take a lifetime : how was I going to decide which particular social group to choose ?

It so happened that at that particular time, I was asked by the University of Michigan to organize an event celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Turkish Republic. As the Turkish L.A. Consul General at the time was a former school mate of mine, I decided to invite him as a co-discussant and chose “Turkey and the European Union” as the theme. What I had failed to realize at the time was the significance of choosing the representative of the Turkish state as a discussant, for the morning of the event we saw the conference hall surrounded by many Armenians with signs about the Genocide protesting the stand of the Turkish state. The lecture hall was filled almost to the brim and most of the two hundred people present there were Armenians wearing signs that said “Remember 1915.” They quietly listened to us talk about Turkey and the European Union.

I in the meanwhile apologized to my friend the consul stating that I had not expected this turn of events ; and he said not to worry, this was much better than what had happened to him in Germany recently where people threw their shoes at him — at least here they were quiet. After our talks, during the question and answer period, one old Armenian lady stood up and with tears coming down her eyes asked us both how we could even think of joining the European Union without accounting for what had happened to her parents, her parents who had been orphaned after seeing their own family massacred in front of their eyes at Deyr Zor ? My friend the consul reacted with a story of his own which I had not heard about until that point even though I had known him for twenty years : his own mothers’ family was from the East and had also been massacred by Armenian militia. What could be done about his pain and suffering, he wanted to know. It was at that moment that I got up and said “I am very lucky for I have not had anyone in my family who has been killed in such a manner ; I am lucky because I know both sets of my grandparents.” Then, turning to the old Armenian lady, I said that I too was a mother, I too knew how important family was. I then added that it must be so awful to lose one’s family, that I recognized her pain, and then I asked her what I could do to help ease her pain and suffering.

I will not to this day forget the shock and relief my recognition brought to her face. She was speechless. I will also not forget how the tension in the room totally dissipated from that moment onward. It was at that moment that I realized recognizing one another’s emotions is the greatest human quality we as people have to share with one another. It was also at that moment that I decided to work on this topic.

Another significant reason I chose this topic was because the act of violence that had been conducted by a group of Young Turks against the Armenians was the first act of state violence that had not been accounted for in Turkish history. Unlike the Armenian militia who had attacked my friend the consul’s family, the ones who had attacked the old Armenian lady’s family did so with the support of the state, in the name of the state : that was a significant difference that needed to be accounted for. Because it had not been accounted for, this violence then became naturalized in the Turkish political repertoire ; because it became naturalized, it was then repeated throughout Turkish history against other social groups at various junctures in various forms such as 6-7 September 1955 events, Kurdish uprisings, Sivas events, and many others. Hence, this was a historical event that Turkish society and state needed to confront in order to become more democratic in the future, in order to open a public space for all social groups to coexist peacefully within Turkey in the future. What have I and other scholars done so far to actualize this vision ? As we realized as scholars that the debate over what to call the events of 1915 was sapping all the energy out of academic research and turning young scholars away from the field, we decided to focus instead on the time period and context at large. So we as a group of like-minded scholars established a Turkish Armenian workshop group (referred to with the acronym WATS) that has been in existence since the year 2000. We have been holding workshops almost on a yearly basis to discuss the historical events surrounding 1915 with the intent to understand what happened, why it happened, and how the various social groups of the empire were affected by these events. We now have about four hundred members and many books, papers and studies have come out of our endeavors. There is now a similar group here in England called the Program in Armenian Turkish Studies (otherwise known by the acronym PATS). We have also established dialogue groups among Turkish and Armenian graduate students in the United States who get together to discuss issues that are of concern to them. We have undertaken all these endeavors because we think we can envision a common future where the Turks and Armenians can coexist, one that does not pit them against one another, and such a space, we think, can be created through the creation of a joint history of the past. What do I personally envision for the future ? The reconciliation of the Turkish and Armenian peoples I see in my mind’s eye requires a new vision, a new vision that goes beyond the confines of the nation-state. I have been studying this topic intensively for six years now and I have concluded that it was the particular combination of ideologies and institutions in the advent of the twentieth-century that created the tragedy of 1915, namely the ideologies of Western modernity and European nationalism that intersected with the social structure and particular institutions of the Ottoman state. The nation-states of the twentieth-century then interpreted, defined and politicized this tragedy. It is no accident that as we near reconciliation in the post-Cold War era, we as human beings now seek for a new world order that could somehow leave behind the twentieth-century that, marked by nationalisms and two World Wars, turned out to be the bloodiest century in human history. And that is why the vision of the European Union is so significant, for it aspires to define and relate to human beings in a way that surpasses the narrow confines of the identity instilled in them by their nation-states : I see the European vision as highlighting the human experience past and present with an ultimate belief in the ability of humankind to persevere through dialogue. True, dialogue takes time and energy ; it is boring ; it becomes terribly bureaucratic as it translates to thousands of meetings and hundreds of thousands of pages of protocols, but it ultimately upholds one significant principle we should all share in the twenty-first century : it puts human dignity and belief in the sanctity of the human life before the interests of the nation-state. Let me also add a footnote here that this is also why I strongly object to the current foreign policy of the United States because I think it does not adhere to this principle. It is much harder for me to discuss the visions of the Armenian diaspora as there are so many so unfortunately dispersed into so many different nation-states as a consequence of the tragic events of 1915. I nevertheless salute among them the visions of those who I have been fortunate enough to meet and get to know, those who in spite of the indescribable stories of painful massacres that destroyed their ancestors, the retelling and remembering of which constantly tormented their grandparents and still continue to give them and their children nightmares, those among them I found sharing two fundamental qualities : a belief in the ultimate goodness of humans and a generosity of spirit in spite of it all. They were able to embrace me first as a human being to work with me so that we altogether could create a better future together.

As for the other two nation-states, the Turkish and Armenian Republics, I salute the initial vision of the newly-formed Armenian State in 1990 which, when it started negotiations for the recognition of their state with the Turkish Republic, did not make the recognition of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 a precondition.

That leaves me with the discussion of the vision of the last but for me the most significant nation-state, that of the Turkish Republic. I think the new vision of the Turkish Republic likewise needs to transcend the narrow confines of the nation-state, and the elements of that vision can once again be found in the vision of the founder of the Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. It is extremely significant that when pondering the future of his republic, Atatürk consistently and persistently saw that path leading to Europe and identified two social actors within Turkey to lead the country down that path, namely the military and the youth. I think he chose the military given the harshness of the road that he had taken as a soldier himself : as an officer, he had literally been involved in perpetual military conflict for thirteen years from 1909 to 1922. I think that Ataturk mentioned the military to secure that path, but I also think that he ultimately entrusted all that he had created to the Turkish youth.

The most significant proof for this is in his famous Speech, referred to as Nutuk which is Atatürk’s own account of the Turkish Independence Struggle which he led and the Republic he founded against all odds). He delivered the Speech during 15-20 October 1927 at the second annual meeting of the Republican People’s Party over 36.5 hours. It ended very dramatically with Atatürk entrusting all he has created to the youth : “I entrust my creation to the Turkish youth. You Turkish youth, your first duty is to forever preserve and defend the Turkish Republic and independence. This is the sole basis of your future and existence. There will be in the future many internal and external enemies that may want to take this treasure away from you... [One day] all this may be occupied by force and trickery...even more gravely, within the country, those in power may be in delusion and even treason. Those in power may even pose their personal interests as political aims. The nation may be in poverty, disarray and lethargy. You, the children of the future of Turkey : your duty even under such conditions is to save the Turkish Republic and independence !” I think Atatürk knew that the new vision of Turkey would be eventually formed by the educated Turkish youth and the civil society they would create ; I think he ultimately knew that it was the generations of youth who would be able to think and dream about what should, ought to come next for a Turkey that would be idealistically unfettered by narrowly-defined interests ; that they should be the ones generating the interests that would be befitting the twenty-first century. I think he was ultimately able to determine that only they would be capable of forming a new identity that could transcend the narrow confines of the ethnic Turk of the nation-state. Indeed, listen to the music that is played in Turkey today, read the novels that are written in Turkey today, watch the plays, musical performances staged in Turkey today and you shall see a new identity emerging, an identity that is already embracing the histories of the entire Anatolia, that it is already imbued and enriched by the narratives of the Armenians, Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Greeks, and others. I think that is the Turkey Mustafa Kemal would have envisioned, entrusted upon the youth of Turkey and that is the Turkey the youth are creating. And it is that new vision which is created in Turkey that will transcend the narrow confines of the current nation-state of the Turkish Republic to embrace the European vision. And then, I as an ethnic Turk can finally feel proud that I am a Turk for having created that vision which we have been aspiring for so long only to be kept so painfully back from, only to so harshly and unjustly be forced to exclude so many with whom I share so much of my past and present with. I can finally move on, reconcile, grow, mature and celebrate the identity Atatürk envisioned for me, for us all.

1) This section is quoted from an article Gerard Libaridian and I have recently written for the Journal of International Relations.

dimanche 22 octobre 2006,
Stéphane ©armenews.com

"Facing History and Ourselves" in London on October 10th 2006.



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